Saturday, October 5, 2013

Nietzsche, nyet

The boorish philosopher, Friederich Nietzsche

There seems to always be room for a few prominent atheists, perhaps just to keep the pot boiling. From Voltaire to Dawkins, a sort of prophetic / jester slot exists in the culture ... a talk show provocateur, out to unsettle the settled pieties of the age, even if the age, like ours, is largely atheist to start with.

Nietzsche briefly played this part with his famous pronouncement that god is dead, we killed it, and we had better come up with some other moral landscape for ourselves in its absence. An excellent review of Nietzsche's thinking is Rüdiger Safranski's philosophical biography, which lopes through Nietzsche's life and works with enthusiastic but also critical eyes.

I have to say, however, that I do not share Safranski's enthusiasm. I find Nietzsche in the end undisciplined, unsystematic, unsympathetic, and unconvincing. For all the flashes of insight, his thought does not lend itself to a coherent critique of his own or the contemporary age, let alone to the progressive, liberal, meliorist political and social direction that I believe is culturally desirable.

Let's do some quotes, to get a feel for the area. Safranksy describes Nietzsche's mid-career infatuation with Wagner, and the possibilities of art serving religious functions for modern man:
"If art is to rescue the essence of religion, it must succeed in bringing about a lasting inner transformation of people. Ephemeral pleasure in art will not suffice. The will to art as religion pushed at the boundaries of the merely aesthetic event, wihch is a source of great distress to artists who, like Wagner, regard themselves as founders of a religion. ...
Wagner sought to achieve a sacral, redemptive effect by means of his *Gesamtkunstwerk. Art must mobilize all of its power. The music supplies a language for the 'inexpressible,' which comprehends only feelings, and combines with the action on the stage, the gestures, the facial expressions, the sert design, and, above all, the solemn ritual of the festival days in which people gather around the altar of art."
All this is certainly well known on the religion side of the culture, from the sumptuous Catholic processions to the pop-guitars at your local megachurch. But always, there is a point. What is the point of Wagner's über-art, or in turn, of Nietzsche's version of the same principle? As far as I can make out, it was not the spreading of compassion, or the communal nationalism founded on an enacted origin myth. It seems to have been self-reflexive, art for art's sake, because art makes us feel so great.

I agree with the importance of art in this way, but it will hardly supplant religion on this principle alone. Something more would be needed - content.

The content, as far as any exists, is hazy nationalism and general Germanic cultural triumphalism. In this, neither Wagner nor Nietzsche were Nazis before their time. But the Nazis were heavily Wagnerian and Nietzschean. They saw quite clearly the tone of what both had done. The total artistic spectacle was something the Nazis were particularly enamored of, as documented so well by Leni Riefenstahl.

But Nietzsche did have some penetrating insights into the science-religion and science-art debates, as summarized by Safranski:
"It is common belief that the mere presence of something is the simplest thing in the world, but actually it is the most puzzling thing of all. It is easier and more natural to imagine a God and an entire animated nature, because in doing so we project onto the external world what we ourselves are- namely spirit, consciousness, and soul. The greatest challenge is to posit a blind, opaque, merely existing being. .. By immersing himself in the attributes of knowledge, Nietzsche touched on the enigma of being devoid of consciousness. He contended that it is the spontaneous tendency of knowledge to encounter its own principle in all of nature precisely because being devoid of consciousness is actually inconceivable and unfamiliar to it. 'In the great prehistorical era of mankind, spirit was presumed to be everywhere and it did not occur to people to revere it as a privilege of man'".
Which is what Freud would later term "projection". And what relationship do either science or art have to truth?
"Artists shape, create, and produce a new reality. Scientists observe reality. The artists provides forms, and the scientist supplies truth. From the perspective of the artist, Nietzsche discovered in science a fictionality that tended to remain suppressed and unacknowledged. Science seeks truth, but the imagination is also engaged in the process- more than scientists care to admit. Science aims at finding truths, but invents them as well. Art readily acknowledges its basis is imagination; it creates a world of illusions and weaves a beautiful cloak to lay over reality. Whereas science demands that truth be unveiled, art loves veils. Since art is well-versed in invention, it is no secret to art how much invention and drive for refined education is involved in science, much as science is loath to acknowledge that. Nietzsche called this disparity the 'problem of science' as seen from the perspective of art. 
When Nietzsche ventured to contemplate art from the perspecitive of science, he found that its central quandry was a claim to truth. This claim to truth is generally just as unacknowledged in art as is fictionality in science. Art wraps its implicit claim to truth in illusions, and science conceals its implicit fictionality in its claim to truth. Nietzsche attacked art for feigning truth that it cannot provide."
Obviously, this applies particularly to that art called religion, whose veils are steeped in the deepest shades of denial.

Safranski discusses the Greek culture of scientific truth and philosophy, as exemplified by Socrates:
"According to Nietzsche, however, if reality is regarded as increasingly penetrable and controllable, if the first material successes of this culture of knowledge occur in the areas of technology, production, medicine, and the social sphere, and if the hitherto alarming phenomena of natural forces become natural and thus calculable and theoretically controllable causalities, a feeling of optimism extends irght down to those in the lower social strata, who will now begin to share in the dream of the 'earthly happiness of all'. If it become increasingly more feasible to control nature by means of the sciences, why should it not be possible to eliminate the injustice that in inherent in society as well?"
But Nietzsche was not pleased by this prospect at all.
"Nietzsche regarded the Socratic spirit, scientific progress, and democratic upheaval as linked together in this manner. Why, then, was this state of affairs so unappealling to him? Why was he afraid of democracy? We have already seen the answers to these questions in our earlier discussion of his defense of slavery. ... 'In order to have a broad, deep, and fertile soil for  artistic development, the overwhelming majority must be slavishly subjected to the necessities of life to serve a minority beyond the measure of its individual needs.'"
This brings us to the Übermensch, Nietzsche's model of his ideal, a person with no morals or scruples, other than self-actualization. A psychopath, in short. But a highly artistic one, with lots of slaves! One can tell that the Nazis were reading closely here, despite their lip service to socialism and "Volk". The Führer principle is laid out here, in a way.
"In great men, the specific characteristics of life- injustice, lies, and exploitation- are at their greatest."
While one can make many allowances for a philosopher being provocative and seeking book sales, (at this point late in his [sentient] career, Nietzsche had sold hardly any books), the drumbeat of elitism, anti-democratic principles, and valorization of power and ruthlessness is as persistent and unmistakable as it is unforgivable. Nietzsche knew very well what he was doing. He knew the slave societies of antiquity, and took them as his model so that exemplary thinkers and artists (such as himself!) could justify humanity by their own existence and works, and somehow push it forward to something solipsistically called "progress".

The irony is that, for all his vaunted re-evalution of all values, and dismissal of the sheep-ethics of Christianity, Nietzsche was the ultimate Victorian, a prisoner of his time, infatuated with the romanticism of power and of the "great man": in history and in art (and in philosophy!). A romanticism that led straight into the world wars of the next century. It was almost as bad as the Hegelian romanticism of inevitable historical dialectic, which led to its own brand of horrors.

A great culture is made up of more than great men, great works, and great passions. It is made of everyone else too, and of empathy and decency and self-discipline. Of functioning institutions, broad prosperity, and cosmopolitan values. Apollo had a point, as much as Dionysus, and indeed, without patient Apollonian cultural structure and continuity, no Dionysian exuberance can develop into great works, however defined. I'll end with Nietzsche's sneering put-down of bourgeois values, in "Thus Spoke Zarathustra":
"What is love? What is creation? What is longing? What is a star?" -- so asks the Last Man, and blinks.  
The earth has become small, and on it hops the Last Man, who makes everything small. His species is ineradicable as the flea; the Last Man lives longest.
"We have discovered happiness" -- say the Last Men, and they blink. 
They have left the regions where it is hard to live; for they need warmth. One still loves one's neighbor and rubs against him; for one needs warmth. Turning ill and being distrustful, they consider sinful: they walk warily. He is a fool who still stumbles over stones or men!  
A little poison now and then: that makes for pleasant dreams. And much poison at the end for a pleasant death. One still works, for work is a pastime. But one is careful lest the pastime should hurt one. One no longer becomes poor or rich; both are too burdensome. Who still wants to rule? Who still wants to obey? Both are too burdensome.  
No shepherd, and one herd! Everyone wants the same; everyone is the same: he who feels differently goes voluntarily into the madhouse.
"Formerly all the world was insane," -- say the subtlest of them, and they blink.
They are clever and know all that has happened: so there is no end to their derision. People still quarrel, but are soon reconciled -- otherwise it upsets their stomachs. They have their little pleasures for the day, and their little pleasures for the night, but they have a regard for health.  
"We have discovered happiness," -- say the Last Men, and they blink.

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